Friday, March 1, 2013

Creepy Camping

Hello, Dear Readers! I have been neglecting my poor blog as of late: sometimes the last thing you want to do after writing all day is to open up the computer and write more. On the other hand, it is nice to give my short-attention span brain a mental walk through the woods and think about something other than revamping my M.Sc. for actual publication. I'm trying to get this particular manuscript ready to submit prior to my corrective laser eye surgery in early March. I am both excited and anxious about this procedure.

I was inspired to write this particular post from two sources. Brian Switek wrote about a rather hair-raising evening that he spent having his tent guarded by two dogs (that weren't his). Another source came from cleaning out my field gear and finding odds and ends: a crumpled leaf, a granola bar wrapper, a used bear-banger cartridge. These items bring to mind some of the more interesting adventures we've had in the wilderness of northeast B.C.

I am completely comfortable (although careful - I am a klutz, after all) in the wilderness. I would rather walk through a forested area alone without any light than do the same in an urban area. In fact, after I had left a local Halloween party one year, on hearing a lot of drunken male hooting and hollering occurring on the street, I left the beaten paths and made my way home through one of the many green belts around town. It was bliss. I encountered one White-tailed Deer and one fox, both of which just observed my passage and continued on with their regular activities.

Needless to say, I realize that not everyone shares in my comfort of a dark forest. We've trained ourselves as a society to be leery of the deep dark woods. Most of our childhood myths and stories contain at least one creepy beastie that lives in the haunted forest and wants to eat young children. We spend less time outside at night, and create for ourselves an artificially extended daytime. There is a part of our psyche that is still afraid of the dark.

One of the great joys of palaeontology field work for me is the amazing amount of time I get to spend outside. Working on our hadrosaur excavation requires several weeks of camping in the same location in the woods. If you set up a more-or-less semi-permanent camp in the wild, you either attract the attention of local fauna, or the local fauna becomes so used to your presence that it treats you and your camp as an addition to the ecosystem. One year we had a young Black Bear who was too curious for its own good about our colorful tents: it belly flopped on two and made a huge rip in another. We set up noisemakers and other deterrents to scare the bear out of camp when we weren't around. We also knew that once we were asleep, Mrs. Bear (she had a cub the next year) would find a chewy human surprise if she wanted to ransack our tents.

We often have volunteers assist us with the excavation, although many are just day-trippers. Unless they are seasoned campers, our volunteers are not too enthusiastic to spend a night at camp. Or, more precisely, they are enthusiastic until the sun goes down.  Only a few have done an overnight or two at camp.  Our good friend Charissa decided to come for an overnight the same year we had the bear encounters. She didn't have a tent of her own, so our field assistant set her up with a bivy sack.

Have you every slept in a bivy sack? Here's what they look like:

Not my exact bivy sack (mine is a little more worn), but I use an Outdoor Research brand bivy sack like the one pictured here. Image from Mountain Equipment Co-Op,

It's essentially the tent version of a body bag. They're light and quick to set up, and if you are striking out from base camp for a day of prospecting, it's nice to be able to set up camp after 10km and not have to worry about making it back to the base that evening. I find them extremely comfortable. I've used mine in the pouring rain and have had a great night's sleep. Fortunately the one used by Charissa did have a little more room than a conventional bivy, but it was still close quarters.

The night we retired turned out to be a busy night in terms of local wildlife. First, coyotes began serenading in the distance. Coyotes can be lovely to listen to when you are sitting on your porch in the evening, but they take on an eerie tone when all you have separating you from the eldritch howls is a bit of polyester.

The serenade was followed by complete silence. Then, a barking, wheezing coughing noise shot out from the dark, only a few hundred meters from camp. Rich and I got out to investigate, but we could not find the source of the unnerving sound. We suspect it was a call of one of our local ungulates (moose or elk), but knowing that did not make it sound any less creepy. The night continued with the usual scurryings, gnawing, rustlings, and creaking of the forest.

How did Charissa enjoy all of this activity? Here is how the evening unfolded for her. It was a warm evening, so she had started off outside of her sleeping bag. She was also feeling a bit claustrophobic from the fabric of the bivy sack draping a mere centimeters from her face, but knew this would pass once she fell asleep. She dealt with the coyote serenade like a trooper; however, the coughing ungulate (which she named The Asthmatic Coyote) was too much. Charissa transitioned from feeling slightly uncomfortable to "I did this voluntarily?!?" in a matter of seconds. The bivy sack began to feel like that clueless person at a party who refuses to acknowledge the sanctity of Personal Space. After the excitement the Asthmatic Coyote (who might also prove to be quite hungry), the evening cooled off. So did Charissa. Uncomfortably so. She attempted to move into the sleeping bag, but the smothering embrace of the bivy made the fabric hiss and crackle loudly. Loud enough to attract the attention of the ravenous Asthmatic Coyote...and anything else that might be lurking out there. Was that rustling in the leaves a mouse...or something larger? What if it was the bear who liked to investigate tents? With her claws?!? No matter how Charissa contorted herself, there was no way she was getting into her sleeping bag without alerting creatures great and small that she was trapped in a convenient take-away burrito wrapping. Her apparent choice was to either ring the dinner bell or attempt to sleep with a corner of the sleeping bag covering a foot. She chose the latter.

Charissa (and the rest of us) did survive the night. The encounter with the Asthmatic Coyote did inspire her to purchase a two person tent with plenty of room for stealthy maneuvering, and did join us at camp the following year, now a seasoned veteran of the Noises of the Night.

This turned into someone else's Creepy Camping story, and I'm sure I will remember one or two of  mine once I'm not in paper submission mode. In the meantime, share your creepy camping stories, even if they turn out to be not creepy (and rather amusing) in the end!

Until next time,


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